Then my favorite musician married my favorite actress and started writing music about her, and putting her in his liner notes. But that wasn’t enough for Keith Urban. No, he had to write the song that I couldn’t resist using as the inspiration for my story:
That is the kind of love I adore writing about, and that is exactly the love I wanted to write about here for my turn at TMDRA. I hope you enjoy it!
Sing along if you know the words...
Deeply closeted country musician James Johnson’s career is on the rocks when he goes away on writing retreat with his on-again, off-again lover and song writing partner, Whitney Turner. Except the harmony turns to discord when the old fight threatens to split them for good. Can they work on the same page, or is James’s career (and love life) done for?
Rated – Adult – Appropriate for 18 years and older only
Genre – Contemporary M/M
Heat Level – Erotic
From Nashville Heart Weekly, May 30, 2011:
While many artists would have taken time to lick their wounds after a flop as spectacular as Jimmy Johnson’s failed pop experiment, JJ’s House, industry buzz has it that the once-popular country crooner is headed to an undisclosed location to start writing all new songs for his next album. That same dedication to his craft that has kept Johnson afloat through some rocky times in his career – rehab for his much-publicized drug problem, the fallout from the annulment of his three-month marriage to actress Shelby Carr, and some decidedly not family-friendly photos in a certain ladies’ only magazine being a few of the more popular high points – and those closest and most loyal to Johnson have hinted that this song writing retreat will be as much about production as it will be about finding his country roots again.
If that’s true, then Johnson couldn’t ask for better company along the way. Whitney Turner, known by all the best names in the business as the man to have working on your tunes, has been packing his bags for a little getaway of his own. Turner co-wrote some of Johnson’s biggest hits to date with the artist himself, including “Old Dancing Shoes,” “Knocking on Your Door,” and of course, the ever popular ballad “Somebody Else’s Name.” If they’re pairing up again, it’s probably safe to say that Nashville will never be the same...
The mountains rose up all around them, covered in their early summer green. A few of the bushes and trees still clung to late spring buds, bright pink and white splashes that zoomed by as Whit drove the rental along the road. They’d left the general store and incorporated county roads about an hour back, and James had finished off his coffee almost as long ago, but the further and further they got from Nashville, the reporters, the reviews that made it sound like he’d suddenly gone tone deaf instead of just produced an album no one wanted, the better he felt.
The Jeep bounced over a pothole big enough to swallow them whole, throwing James a few inches in the air despite his seatbelt. He looked over at Whit and laughed.
“You look like a kid at the county fair, man.” James tossed his empty paper cup in emphasis. “I didn’t know you were into off-roading.”
Whit’s smile was wide and bright in the late morning sunlight as he tossed his head to get a shock of black hair out of his eyes. “We’re almost there,” he said, popping a fresh piece of his favorite gum in his mouth. Sure enough, he slowed down just before taking a dirt road James hadn’t even seen coming, and then the jostling eased up as the tires found old tracks worn from decades of visitors, coming round a bend just as the trees parted.
The log cabin sprawled lakeside, the back end half-hidden by trees and bushes, like the forest was trying to take it back, or maybe just keep it safe, cradling the house in branches and ivy. There were glints of glass in the shingled roof, modern skylights hinting at who knew how many other updates that might have been made over the years, while a long porch ran half the length of the front of the house, complete with rocking chairs that could have come right out of a “country life” photo somewhere. There was even a tire swing hanging in the shade of a lakeside tree.
“It’s gorgeous,” James said quietly.
“Thanks.” Whit pulled the Jeep up onto the gravel drive in front of the house. “Not much of the family comes out too often since my grandfather died, but we used to spend every summer here, running wild as heathens.”
James laughed. “You must have been one giant freckle by the time school started in the fall.”
“Well, we can’t all be blond-haired, brown-eyed country boys.” Whit punched James’s arm just hard enough to sting. “Some of us have to suffer with the burden of being the pretty ones.”
Without even bothering to come up with a retort, James climbed out of the Jeep. His duffle bag and guitar were in the back, right next to Whit’s gear and the coolers of supplies. Everything they needed for the next few days, and it would be easy enough to refuel after that.
They unpacked the Jeep quickly and got everything piled on the porch. Whit unlocked the front door and stopped, turning to James with a small smile.
“So I finally got you alone,” he said, leaning in. Whit’s fingers were warm and familiar on the back of James’s neck, his breath minty and close. “What’m I gonna do with you?”
And there it was. That old, familiar panic; the conviction they were being watched, that a reporter would jump out of the nearest tree with camera flashing and tape rolling. It didn’t matter where they were, or how far away they were from the rest of civilization. All that matter was the surge of panic that rose up like bile in the back of James’s throat, turning his head.
Whit’s mouth landed awkwardly on the corner of James’s. For a moment, they both froze, and then Whit pulled away with a sigh like guitar strings out of tune.
“We can wait until after lunch to start work, I figure,” James said. “Long drive, and I could use a shower and a nap, you know?”
For a long moment, he thought Whit might call him on it, might start them off on the path they’d both been avoiding for so long. Then he stepped back, face closing off and those sky-blue eyes shuttering against him.
“Yeah. We can work after lunch. Whatever you want, Jim.”
Jim. Ouch. Whit only brought that one out when he was his most pissed off, and the only hope James had of fixing it was to lay low for a while until Whit cooled off. Maybe try to get some work done.
James followed Whit inside the house, feeling as off-track and lost as his last album. There were people expecting a new batch of songs from him yesterday, and he was fresh out of do-overs. It was time to get cracking and start writing.
Just as soon as he figured out where the music in his soul had gone.
They didn’t talk much as they worked that afternoon, bent over notebooks and blank sheet music pages. James told himself it was because they had their own thought processes to work through before they could come together and make the songs happen, and that they both knew better than to force things along, but he knew otherwise.
Every word James tried to write sounded hollow and trite, and every note he scribbled fell sour on his ears. They went through two pots of coffee before Whit cursed and pushed back from the table, announcing he was going to bed early. James had just grunted and spouted some bullshit about the both of them being worn out, even though he felt like clawing out of his own skin and climbing up the walls out of sheer frustration.
Maybe it had been too long since they’d done this, he wondered as he set a new pot on to brew; his last album hadn’t had any collaborations on it at all, and Whit hadn’t put out any new music in almost a year. Maybe they’d just forgotten how to play well with others.
That was a lie, and James knew it. He still remembered their argument when Shelby had tired of their sham of a marriage and left, and James had shown up at Whit’s door only to be sent back home to his big empty house. Whit had needed more than the occasional lay when it was convenient for them, and James... well. It was better to be considered a player that wouldn’t settle down that the truth, and they both knew it. The damn tiger in the corner of the room, threatening to tear it all down if James wasn’t careful.
The mattress was musty and lumpy, but the sheets were soft enough that James didn’t care. All he wanted was to sleep in a little more. The sky had been getting light with sunrise by the time he’d hauled his sorry butt to bed, but he’d not only finished a rough draft of some lyrics he’d started the night before, but had also made serious progress on a second song. The pages for that, a few snippets of lyrics but otherwise wordless for now, were tucked away safe until later, something he could work on alone.
Grumbling at his crowded thoughts as they insisted on waking him up, James buried his face in the pillow and snuggled deeper into the covers. That was right about when he felt the mattress dip and the familiar press of Whit against his back. Comfortable, always with just the right amount of give, and something James had thought he’d never feel again.
“Your rhyming scheme sucks,” Whit said, kissing the back of James’s shoulder. “But maybe we can fix it up a bit, find a better singing rhythm.” His arm curled around James’s torso, hand flat over his heart. “Might have been a good B-side, if they still had ‘em.”
“You say that about everything you write.” He could hear the grin in Whit’s voice, and knew his lyrics had done the job.
“That’s because I’m a genius.”
“Sure thing, babe.” Whit kissed his neck. “Now shut up, I’m trying to go back to sleep, yeah?”
James smiled into the pillow as some of the bands around his heart eased a bit. “Yeah.”
Three days later, and things were better. Almost like old, only not, and James knew there was a talk looming in their future, but thought maybe it could keep a while yet. All he wanted was to bask in the glow of those stolen hours, working together on song ideas, playing in the kitchen, fighting over bed linens, and the hot, passionate sex that threatened to set the whole house on fire when they came together.
Still, James would catch Whit watching him out of the corner of his eye, looking thoughtful, like he had a whole monologue locked and loaded for just the right moment. So he knew it wasn’t going to last. It was just a matter of time.
“I wish I could make it all stay just like this,” James said at the end of the third day.
“Hmm?” Whit sounded casual, but James could feel the tension in him. They were sharing a lounge chair, James between Whit’s legs and leaning back against his chest as they watched the sun going down behind the pines at the far side of the lake.
“You and me, all alone with no one to bother us or get in the way.” James laced their fingers, tan and freckled, together until they were almost knotted. “I wish I didn’t have to go back to the groupies and the plants that pretended to be groupies that I’d supposedly slept with. If I was brave enough, I could just tell them...”
Whit sighed. “That you’d been getting your rocks off with other dudes since you were sixteen and they were barking up the wrong tree?” He rested his cheek on top of James’s head. “You and I both know that’s only if you want to deep-six what’s left of your career in a hurry. That’s why we’ve always been just this, James.”
“Yeah, well.” James laughed hollowly. “What if I wanted more than just this? Something more than just the occasional stolen fuck when we can get away would be nice. I want what other people have, Whit. I want that romance we’re always so keen on me singing about.”
Whit locked up behind him, moving quickly to climb out of the chair without dislodging James. “As if I’m going to get to give it to you,” he said. “Look, do me a favor, Jim, and stop dangling what I can’t have in front of me, yeah? It’s not cool and I don’t play those games.”
But Whit didn’t stop, his boots loud on the dock as he stormed back to the house. And James just sat there, clueless and helpless and feeling like he’d just done something very wrong when all he’d been doing was trying to say that Whit was the only thing that actually felt right in his life.
James waited until long past sunset, half-hoping that Whit would come back out and they’d be able to pick things back up again, pretend everything was fine like they had about nearly everything else. Eventually, he had to give up and go in on his own, when the dusk chill settled in to a night cool, and James only had his shorts and a thin t-shirt for protection.
The house was dark despite the banked coals in the fireplace, and there was no sign of Whit in the living room or kitchen as James made his way through for a lonely cup of coffee. Even the pot was cold, so he took a few minutes to warm up the last dregs on the stove, forehead on the range hood and eyes closed. Every move, every sound seemed to echo strangely, and the cabin felt as empty as James had that night Whit had sent him home.
I don’t want to be your back-up lay anymore, Jim.
And now James had tried to give him just that, more than he’d ever offered before, and things were more broken than ever. He didn’t understand why, and if he didn’t understand, he didn’t have a prayer in fixing it.
Familiar footsteps scuffed on the linoleum behind him as James poured the reheated coffee into his mug. He turned around slowly, feeling like a man meeting the firing squad, and might as well have been shot, as much as the hurt in Whit’s eyes damn near killed him.
“There’s no hope for more than this,” Whit said. His voice sounded like gravel, and James’s fingers curled reflexively around the mug instead of reaching for him. “I got that a long time ago, before you made it big, before you got married. I’m reminded with every girlfriend, every gossip column tying your name to another girl willing to play the game in exchange for her fifteen minutes. If there’s no place for a gay cowboy in Nashville, then that goes double for his fuck buddy.”
James stood there, numb. It wasn’t anything they hadn’t talked about before, but this time he heard more than just a breakdown of their messed up situation. It was the wedge that was finally doing its job between them. He reached for Whit and stumbled into the kitchen table instead.
“But we can...” James tried, and then trailed off. He didn’t know what they could do, but there had to be something.
“Don’t pretend that we’re like everyone else and all we have to do is just win over a few family and friends,” Whit said, shaking his head. “You’re not, Jim. You’re special, one of country’s rising stars. And me? I’m... I’m just the guy you sometimes write songs and sleep with. We can’t be together all the time, not with things the way they are, and I know a hell of a lot better than to even daydream that you’d ever want to give all that up to be with me. I’m flat out not worth it.”
“Don’t even say that. You’re my friend.” James could feel the moment slipping through his fingers. “You’re much more than that, always have been, even when I’ve been a shit to you.”
Whit shook his head and smiled sadly. “I’m self-deluded, is what I am. But at least I’m being honest now.” He sighed. “Look, I think it’s best if I sleep in my room tonight, okay? I should be back to normal in the morning, but for now... for now, I really just need the space.”
“Yeah. Sure.” The words sounded strangled, probably because of the huge knot lodged in the middle of his throat. James swallowed thickly and let Whit turn around and pad quietly out of the kitchen, leaving him with nothing but a table covered in song notes and a mug of lukewarm coffee.
No matter what Whit said, the next day was hell for the both of them. They barely spoke, neither one able to make eye contact. If it had been anyone else, any other situation, James might have joked that Hell was being locked away for the next month with someone that just dumped you. But he really wasn’t feeling up to humor, so he just settled for staying out of Whit’s way as much as possible.
By mid-afternoon, James was ready to start climbing the walls. Instead, he grabbed his iPod and went for a walk.
Whit thinks I don’t really want to be with him, he mused as he put the music player on random, he thinks I’d never be willing to even admit wanting the things he wants. But if I just tell him, he’d never believe me. Life’s never that easy, is it?
Right then, the music shuffled up one of his own singles, and James heard his voice singing the familiar words of “Somebody Else’s Name.” He and Whit had written it over a weekend when he’d been told by management that he was going to have a whirlwind marriage with Shelby. Getting married would mean no more playing around, nothing; it might have been a bogus marriage on both sides, but James was still a man of his word, and even if he only had, at most, brotherly thoughts about her.
The ballad had been an instant hit, a tear-jerker that he couldn’t get away from playing even now, two years later. It was easy to get lost in the technicalities of the music, but just now, walking along a lake with only one other person around for miles, James found himself listening to the words he and Whit had written for each other.
And he had an idea.
He waited until after dinner to shut himself up in his room, not that they got any work done before they ate. They just sat in opposite corners of the living room, reading books and doing a piss-poor job of pretending the other wasn’t there. James sure hoped this worked, because if it didn’t, there was no way he’d be able to spend the rest of the month like this, even ignoring the fact that his heart felt like it was in a million pieces in his chest.
For the first couple of hours, he just worked on paper, scribbling notes and trying to get into the flow of the music when every part of him wanted to be downstairs with Whit. But then it was always like that; looks that lasted too long and conversations at parties cut short until they could stand a little closer. It was like the music flowed better when they were together.
The first few attempts had to be scrapped for being depressing shit, and the one after that sounded more like a greeting card. It wasn’t until he heard Whit’s measured steps in the hall and let himself pretend they were coming his way like they should have been that a smile kicked up one side of James’s mouth and the words clicked.
And when it came time to work on the music, James gathered up his papers and his guitar and crept back downstairs. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if he woke Whit up with his strumming, now would it?
He sang about wanting to keep Whit with him, wanting the world to see what they had. He sang about never being able to get enough of what it was between them, because if James was being honest, it had long ago stopped being just sex. Way before Shelby, before the fame. If it hadn’t, they’d have been able to quit ages ago. But there was no quitting this, and James needed Whit to know that he saw it now.
As the last notes faded, Whit knelt on the rug, hands running over the pages. He was wearing a pair of drawstring pants that James was pretty sure were actually his, and somehow that gave him a little more courage.
“You should pick up the tempo, make it more peppy and less of a ballad,” Whit said. He didn’t look up for a long while, but when he did, his face was serious, eyes unreadable in the firelight.
“But it’s good. I think you’ve really got something there.”
“You’ll want to change the pronouns before you record, though. You probably don’t want to go around singing about putting other guys in love songs, Jim.”
“Whit, will you shut up?”
Whit’s hands clutched at the papers, but he closed his mouth and sat back on his heels. It was enough of an opening to get out what needed out, James figured.
“It’s for you,” he said. “I’ll fix the tempo if you want me to, but this song, I didn’t write it for any album, I didn’t write it to sing about some nameless girl. I wrote it for you, because it’s all about you. I’d thought I made that pretty damn clear, didn’t you?”
Whit didn’t say anything, just looked down at his hands. But he didn’t leave, so James hoped he was on the right track. All he could do was keep trying until he got it right, until he fixed things enough that Whit could see that he really was right there for him.
James shook his head and set his guitar aside. “This, we, can’t end like this. Not when we’ve never really tried. I know it’s going to suck, I know it’s going to be hard, but you’re worth it. God, are you ever worth it. So if you think the song needs fixing, we can do that. Together. Okay?”
Whit laughed, just once, and finally looked up. There were tears in his eyes, but a real smile on his face as he held out a hand to James. And that was it. The sign James was waiting on.
Crawling over the small space between them, James met Whit’s kiss eagerly, hands cradling faces, like they might drift apart again if they didn’t hold on tight from here on out. James’s fingers tangled in Whit’s hair for a few seconds, clinging a little tighter when Whit tried to pull up for air.
“Bedroom,” Whit whispered against his lips.
That one word was enough to push James into action, and he was up and heading for the stairs in a heartbeat, fingers laced with Whit’s. Not like he had to pull Whit along; Whit followed right behind him, laughing and shoving to make him go faster, get there sooner. Their bare feet skidded on the polished wood floors, and James banged to a halt against the wall just outside Whit’s room, pulling him in for another kiss, curling one hand around Whit’s hip, smiling into another light kiss.
Whit leaned back, not enough to break the contact of their bodies, but enough to watch was he traced the lines of James’s face. “I always do like lookin’ at you,” he said, as quiet as the shadows around them. His voice was low and slow, that old drawl that hardly ever came out after so much time in the music industry. “Knowin’ you’ve shown me parts the rest of the world can’t even dream of. Even when it killed me to know it, I did still like the lookin’. Maybe because it reminded me of times like this, you know?”
“Whit...” James cupped the side of Whit’s face in his free hand. “I don’t know what I do without you to love the real me just as much as I...” He swallowed around a thick knot, the words refusing to come out just yet.
But Whit understood. Of course he did. He just laughed. “You little shit,” he said. “Stealing my thunder and sayin’ it for me.” Another laugh, this one right against James’s mouth. “Come on to bed, babe.”
They stumbled into the bedroom, working together to get their clothes off so that by the time they fell together onto the mattress, there was just the thin cotton of James’s boxers between them. Still way too much in the way of clothes, but nothing at all considering what they’d already blasted away in the past few minutes.
James lifted his hips to help get that last bit out of the way, and then finally Whit was kneeling between his legs, the pair of them naked and so very hard that James thought he might burst the second Whit touched him. It hadn’t been all that long, but it had never really felt like this before, and James was so glad Whit had left the light on so he could see the flex of muscles under fair skin as Whit stretched his long, slender body to reach the bedside drawer for the supplies.
“You’re so fucking gorgeous,” James said, the words like a prayer. “Why have I never told you that before?”
“Beats me,” Whit said. He kissed James’s chest, just above his heart.
“Well, you are.” Teasing fingers brushed the length of James’s cock, leaving cool traces of lube, and James would have arched right off the bed if Whit hadn’t been kneeling over him. It took more effort than it should have to keep going, but he managed. “Don’t know what you’re doing with someone like me.”
Whit chuckled. “You have your moments,” he said. And then those fingers pressed against James’s entrance, sliding in with easy practice after only a moment.
James’s eyes fell shut, trapping him in a world of darkness, sensation, and Whit. There was just Whit, kissing up his chest; Whit, spreading him open with plunging motions that made breathing almost impossible; Whit, whispering in his ear how much he wanted and needed James. James turned blindly, kissing him hungrily, tired of waiting to be filled with Whit's cock.
And then he got it.
At the first push of Whit’s cock, James clung tighter to him, trying to pull him in faster, deeper. It was the familiar old dance between them, James rushing and Whit dragging it out until James had pushed enough buttons to get his way, and for a moment they fell into it like always. But then Whit kissed the hollow of James’s throat, stilling them both.
“We’ll get there, babe,” he said, breathing softly over James’s sweat-damp skin. “I promise I’ll take care of you so long as you let me.”
At that, James opened his eyes and relaxed a little, head easing back on the pillow, one leg falling to the bed so Whit had a little more freedom. Whit’s smile said he knew that was as good as he was going to get this time around, but it was still welcome.
James rolled his eyes. “You are so lucky I’m crazy about you,” he said.
“Again with the stealing my line.” Whit thrust in deep, filling James completely and robbing him of any kind of comeback. Which was fine, because he so very full and complete, and the slow, deep thrusts Whit picked up were so perfect, lighting James up from the inside.
James ran his hands up Whit’s flanks, feeling each powerful thrust in the ripple of muscle and shock of penetration. Up he went, along Whit’s sides, to feel how hard he was breathing, his heart beating as wildly out of control as James’s. And then one hand cupped the side of Whit’s neck, pulling him in for a kiss, dragging him deeper.
“Oh, God.” Whit groaned, shuddering. “I can’t...”
Forehead to forehead, breath to breath, James forced enough coordination into his legs to plant his feet flat and push up, taking control with short thrusts. “It’s okay,” he murmured, hands running all over Whit’s back and shoulders. “It’s okay.”
“Yeah.” Whit’s arms slid under James, hands cupping his shoulders from behind so his next thrust, hard and deep and tooth-rattling, didn’t send James flying. At least not physically. The feeling of being damn-near split open on Whit’s cock had James almost incandescent with bliss, and he surrendered to it gladly, anchoring himself with his heels in the small of Whit’s back and fists in the sheets. He was so close already, had been from the moment Whit first pushed in, but now James couldn’t hold back any longer, not even if Whit had begged him.
James shoved a desperate hand between their bodies and wrapped it around his cock, jerking quickly. The hard length was slick with sweat, lube, and his own pre-come, and his hand moved easily as he brought himself off. Above him, he felt Whit start to come apart, heard his moans breaking down, and it wasn’t more than a couple of seconds longer that James joined him in a chorus of surrender, their voices blending perfectly.
It was long minutes before either of them could move, Whit pulling away to toss the condom while James wiped himself down with a handful of tissues; familiar motions despite the unfamiliar territory James now wanted, and hoped Whit had heard him asking for in the song.
Fortunately, he didn’t have to check. Whit just curled around him from behind like always, pulling the covers up over them like a shield against the rest of the world, and kissed the back of his shoulder, whispering, “If we do this, and you go off and get married again...”
“I promise, you’re the only one I wanna...” That hadn’t been what James had meant to say, but it was true, so he let it be and kept going. “Move in with me. I’ve got the space and I only ever feel right when you’re with me.”
Whit’s arm tightened around him, pulling him closer. “How about we just finish your album? We’ll pick out china patterns to match the new platinum record later.”
James snorted. “A working honeymoon, huh?”
“If I’ve got you all to myself, I might as well take advantage of it,” Whit said.
“Shut up and go to sleep.” James snuggled back as he said it. “We have work to do in the morning.”
From the liner notes of Where You Are:
...This new album is so very different than all the others before it, because it’s got more of me in it than any others. It took longer than I’d planned to write it, produce it, and finalize it, but what you hold in your hands is probably one of the most honest things I’ve ever done in my life. And to that end, I need to thank my manager, Scar Parrish, for riding me when I needed it and giving me space the rest of the time; the label for the creative space to do what needed doing; the Jimmy Johnson band for all their long hours and effort in and out of the studio; and my producer, Jenna Urban, for her tireless work and putting up with me leaning over her shoulder with my random ideas. And last, but certainly not least, I want to thank my writing partner and best friend, Whitney Turner, without whom none of this would have been possible. I love you, man. Thank you.
International woman of mystery and wearer of many hats, Elizabeth Silver is a writer, a nerd, a professional cat-herder, and a self-proclaimed Internet junkie. With her feet planted about halfway between New York and Philadelphia, Elizabeth has often been accused of having her head in the clouds, although what she’s really doing is just thinking really hard. Elizabeth can frequently be found at the local diners or coffee shops with free Internet access and bottomless refills, working on new story ideas. Online, Elizabeth can be found:
On her website and blog – UrbanSilver.net
On Twitter - @LizSilverWrites
With the Dirty Birdies
Elizabeth’s books can be found at Loose Id, including her most recent release, Where the Heart Is, co-authored with Jenny Urban.